Things Connecticut College could do for New London

A recent opinion piece in the Connecticut College newspaper observed, citing statistics from the New York Times, that the school is indeed elitist.

The writer noted that The Times placed Connecticut College on a list of 38 schools that have more students from the top 1 percent of the country's income scale than the bottom 60 percent, and the median family income of the college student body is just shy of $200,000.

Those numbers just prove the enormous gulf that exists between much of the college population and the people of the poor city that hosts the school.

And it's a reminder of the need for New London Mayor Michael Passero to hurry up and begin negotiating a new agreement for payments by the college to the city in lieu of taxes.

The school newspaper, The College Voice, recently published a thorough account of the 10-year agreement, laying out the total payments of $100,000 over a 10-year period, which concluded over the summer.

The article fully explains the origin of the payment deal, which grew out of a dispute and lawsuit over whether the college should pay taxes on buildings that generate revenue from purposes other than education.

College President Katherine Bergeron told the school newspaper, as she did the Editorial Board of The Day in a recent meeting, that she is ready to negotiate a new deal with the city.

At this point you can't ask for much more than that.

So what's Passero waiting for? Even students at the college are waiting to see what happens next.

Why not invite the president down to the repairs-challenged City Hall, walk her right past the main floor room that has been shuttered for years since a steam pipe rupture, and start talking about the future of town-gown relations.

The starting point, of course, should be that the expired payment in lieu of taxes deal was little more than a fig leaf on the problem, which is that Connecticut College needs to do much more to help its host city, which invited the college here back at the turn of the 20th century, with donated land on the hill.

The old payments deal, with initial annual payments of $7,500, finally escalating to $12,500 for the last five years — much less than one student pays in tuition — was clearly insufficient.

There are ways to come up with a more equitable amount.

If you compare the small Connecticut College endowment to the much larger endowments of, for instance, Yale University and Brown University, which both make generous volunteer payments in the many millions of dollars to their host communities, you could calculate comparable payments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to New London.

But I would suggest the talks go wider and consider other things the rich college community could do for its poor neighbors down the hill, rather than simply writing a check.

I realize that students and other members of the community do volunteer in the city and contribute labor and skills, the same way that employees of big taxpayers, such as Electric Boat, do.

But can't some thought be given to making this kind of contribution more institutionalized? Couldn't college instructors and coaches help city school programs, for instance, with things like sailing and rowing, college preparatory classes.

The biggest barrier between the two communities is the highway network separating them, making it hard to walk back and forth. How hard would it be to run a van on a loop between the college and downtown, making pickups and drop-offs every 10 minutes?

City residents could take it, too, maybe for a walk in the arboretum, a picnic on the college green or to attend a show. Maybe the college library could issue cards to city residents.

Maybe the college could do something really bold, like move its bookstore downtown, like Wesleyan University did in Middletown, making it a downtown retail anchor.

Maybe the mayor and president could not only come up with a number for payment in lieu of taxes but jointly appoint a committee charged with finding ways to bridge the too-wide gap between the two communities.

That itself would be a good beginning in forging new relationships.

President Bergeron has publicly signaled she is ready for the talks.

The ball is squarely in the mayor's court.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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